Cats in the 19th Century (Part 21-Cats and French Writers)

Cats and French writers seem to be inseparable, and in addition to the other French writers that have already been discussed, there were several others who found the cat to be an important companion and sometimes essential symbol in their literature and poetry.

cats and french writersThe French novelist, George Sand (1804-1876), her real name Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin Dudevant, is said to have written much of her work in bed and shared her breakfast bowl with her cat, Minou.

A cat, François, plays an integral part in Émile Zola’s (1840-1902) novel Thérèse Raquin (1867) seemingly assuming diabolical supernatural powers, as it sits and observes the two main characters commit a murder, which ultimately leads to their own self destruction.  The murderer, the superstitious painter Laurent, sees Françoise, Madame Raquin’s pet cat, as a  witness to his crime.  ‘Dignified and motionless, he (François) stared with is round eyes at the two lovers, appearing to examine them carefully, never blinking, lost in a kind of devilish ecstasy.’ Once the conspiring lovers drown Thérèse’s sickly husband Camille, the cat’s behavior, while always realistic, accentuates their guilt and anxiety.  On the night of their marriage, they hear a scratching at the door and believe that it is the drowned man who has come back to haunt them, but they realize that it is only the cat, François.  François then ‘bounded onto a chair, where with bristling fur and legs stiff he stood looking at his new master with a hard, cruel stare’.  Laurent understood the cat’s actions as an attempt at revenge.  (Rogers, 2006 p. 67) The novel almost mirrors the use of the cat Pluto, in Poe’s The Black Cat.  Both the murderous main characters come to view the cat as a satanic nemesis.   A new film, In Secret, based on the Zola story has recently been released.      

cats and french writers emile zola    

 

Paul Verlaine’s poem Woman and Cat (1866) equates woman and cat as both demonic.

Woman And Cat

 

          (Poèmes Saturniens: Caprices I, Femme et Chatte)

 

She was playing with her cat:

And it was lovely to see

The white hand and white paw

Fight, in shadows of eve.

 

She hid – little wicked one! –

In black silk mittens

Claws of murderous agate,

Fierce and bright as kittens’.

 

The other too was full of sweetness,

Sheathing her sharp talons’ caress,

Though the devil lacked nothing there…

 

And in the bedroom, where sonorous

Ethereal laughter tinkled in the air,

There shone four points of phosphorus.

 

 However, the publisher of the French dictionary, Pierre Larousse viewed the cat in a more positive light, writing, “The cat is attractive, adroit, clean, and voluptuous:  he likes his leisure, he searches out only the softest furniture to sleep and play on.”  “The philosophes of the last century affirmed on good authority no doubt, that a pronounced taste for cats in certain people was indication of superior merit.”  (Kete, 1994, pp. 118,123) 

     

cats and french writers Honore de BalzacHonoré de Balzac (1799-1850) had a cat that greeted him at the door every night.    Loving cats, he even wrote a short story entitled, Passion in the Desert, wherein a lost French soldier and a panther form an interesting love relationship.  A film was produced in 1998. In the short story, The Afflictions of an English Cat or also known as Peines de Cour d’une chatte anglaise (Complaints of the Heart of an English Cat) the cat is used more as a metaphor.  Loosely based on Balzac’s play, an opera was written and performed in 1983.  

 

cats and french writers Honore de Balzac

 

Alexander Dumas (1802-1870), the author of The Three Muskateers called the cat a “traitor, deceiver, theif..egoist…ingrate.  Her egoism is proof of her superiority:  the dog’s willingness to hunt for man demonstrates his stupidity, while the cat has an excuse.  When she catches a bird, for she means to eat it herself.” (Aberconway, 1968)  Even so he himself had a cat, Mysouff, who he said, “…would jump up on my knees as if he were a dog, then run off and turn then take the road home, returning at a gallop.” (Kete, 1994, p.129) This the cat would do in greeting after waiting for Dumas’ return home each day.  To read more about Dumas’ cat, Mysouff, check out his book My Pets.

cats and french writers Alexander Dumas

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